Real Estate Photography: Do I Really Need a Pro?

Sometimes I will get a call from a real estate agent asking me about “drone photography,” . . .you know, the flying camera that gets great shots of the roof. . .it’s one of the latest fads in a recent rash of faddish techno-candy; like the 360-degree virtual camera and that floating-cam virtual tour. These new marketing tools are being pushed heavily to agents these days. Just like a pack of lions closing in on the lame Wildebeest, the crafty technozoid sales people descend upon the unsuspecting, typically new and inexperienced, agents who are sometime prone to latching, precipitously, on to the next “big thing.”

What’s driving the sense of need for more marketing technology? Of course, it’s the internet and the reality that 75% of all people searching for a home are on the net even before calling an agent. Thus, because more people are conditioned to begin their home search online, naturally, good photography becomes exponentially more important. 

This phenomenon has already hit the travel industry big time. Hotels, motels and resorts have quickly realized that a substantial amount of their business is coming through online platforms such as Expedia, Trivago, Priceline and a host of others. . .and that their potential clients are having their first encounter with them via photos of their accommodations. Because most hotels are under a central corporate structure, they were able to respond quickly to the sudden need for good photos required by the new online channel demand. Those that still have the fug-ugly photos are losing business. 

The real estate business, with most agents being independent contractors, has been much slower to respond to the new reality. Actually, that fact, gives an even greater advantage to those agents who get out in front with magazine-quality listing photos. It sets your property apart from so many agents who are still submitting photos from their cellphone cameras or having their cousin come do it with his point and shoot with the pop-up flash.  

I know what you’re thinking, “aww. . .fotos schmotos. . .it ain’t going to make a difference in getting a house under contract!” Well, you may be surprised to know that I agree, with a caveat. Good photos of an incorrectly priced home will not make a bit of difference. It will just be another wasted expense included with your time and efforts. Good photos will never sell the house; that’s what the agent is for. However, good photos WILL SELL THE APPOINTMENT for someone to come see the house. . . .and more showings means more offers coming sooner. So bear with me here. 

Whenever you hit a down time between sales, the need for marketing is more immediate and apparent. At such a time, out of desperation, we can make impulsive marketing decisions. You begin to think you need that flying drone video because maybe people do want to look at the roof and be able to count the number of missing shingles. 

Or maybe that 360 degree-vertigo and nausea inducing-camera shots will do the trick. You know the one, it’s the one that makes every room look like the Funhouse Hall of Funky Mirrors. . yeech! 

And for good measure, throw in that floating video camera with the way too long 6 minutes of video gliding through the whole house like a rattling ghost. You may only succeed in giving the viewer the false impression that they have now seen the whole house and, thus, there’s no need for them to call you or come see the house themselves. Hello? That’s not good! 

It is important to recognize when marketing technologies become overdone, wasteful and counter-productive. Yes, that’s what I said, too much of the wrong type of promotions CAN BE A BAD THING and, actually, have the exact OPPOSITE effect of the one intended. There is such a thing as giving out too much information, at the wrong time and in the wrong circumstance. 

I actually saw an advertisement of one of those virtual tour systems and they even openly touted that their videos make viewing the house BETTER THAN BEING THERE!!! Hello?! Every agent knows, CLIENTS COMING AND BEING THERE is what it’s supposed to be all about! It’s the perfect example of when photography service providers are out of touch with what are the subtleties of the marketing of real estate. They are more focused on their own bottom line than they are with yours. The tail starts wagging the dog and the agent starts spending more for gimmicks when the better results can be accomplished for less money. 

Okay, agents. . .don’t get mad at me. ..but I have to tell you that many photographers believe real estate photography is a dead-end because “real estate agents are tightwads!!. . . “you’ll make more money flippin’ burgers” is a comment I hear a lot. Thus, many photographers look to other areas, weddings, portraits and events to pull in the big bucks and it is that reality that has fueled the rise of these media companies that insist you need more bells and whistles. It’s because they conclude the money just isn’t there in real estate photography itself. 

Many photographers and media promotions companies today are searching for new gimmicks to up-sale unsuspecting agents. In fact, some companies will just farm-out their photography work to local photographers while focusing more on the up-sale of their other, more expensive, services. Whereas, their photography product is somewhat better than cellphone-grade photography, it’s not as good as it could be and should be AND it’s not as good as what they, typically, promote on their website. You just are not going to get the best quality when a photographer is loosely affiliated with the company, comes with varying skills and equipment, goes through the house like Sherman went through Georgia and then sends his work off to the franchise Headquarters somewhere in Arkansas or some other far off place where some other person, who has never even seen the house, does the post-production work on the photos. It’s all a ploy to get their foot in the door and start selling their other services, because the profit-margin for them is in those other services, i.e. the nausea-inducing virtual reality business.  

Let me also emphasize this: the principles and habits of successful sales will NEVER be made irrelevant by the bells and whistles of technology. That’s why, bells and whistles notwithstanding, 20% of agents will still be making 80% of the sales. It is because they implement the principles of success regardless of the particular tools used in bringing that success. They are systematic, disciplined and informed. . .and, above all, know that real estate is a human business and it’s about caring, patience and understanding. I learned this by observing my wife, a real estate agent for 10 years, and as more of my business has become real estate photography, I’ve had the pleasure to work with other really outstanding agents. 

So, am I saying technology in the internet era isn’t a factor? No way, in fact, with 75% of potential buyers searching online, an agent today better get techno-savvy and build a substantial social media footprint or get left behind. 

So then, what about the need for professional real estate photography? Does a real estate agent need the help of a professional or will that cellphone camera suffice? Of course, I’m a real estate photographer. . .so you can imagine what my answer would be. . .but, actually, maybe my answer will surprise you. 

The answer is. . ..it depends. 

Listen there are still many, fine, dedicated real estate photographers out there that do beautiful work at a fair price. But I think there are a lot of photographers that miss the point about real estate. I think a lot of photographers sometimes lack the practical knowledge, interest or appreciation of the unique challenges that real estate agents face or what it takes for a real estate agent to have a successful and profitable career. In other words, it requires that a photographer be uniquely aware that the purpose for real estate photography is vastly different than that of weddings, events or portrait photography. Understanding those differences is essential. . .or otherwise the “burger flipper” assessment will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because agents will have no use for you.  

Here’s the reality, many agents feel that paying $200 to $300 for professional photography, is just too much and maybe not be worth it, even for a luxury property listing. An agent looks at any marketing investment in terms of one overriding question: Is this going to bring this listing to closing faster? Can I assert that a house with bad photos vs. a house photographed by a professional is going to expedite the sale of the house? 

Most agents still believe that it doesn’t make that much difference. If the house is priced correctly, the buyers will come. . .even if you’ve only uploaded crayon drawings to the MRIS. This thinking is still pretty common, which is why the MRIS is still filled with the most fug-ugly photography to ever have escaped a camera. . .some of it, sadly, even hilariously catastrophic. In fact, in some cases, crayon drawings would have been preferable.

It is also why professional photographers are running FROM real estate photography like their hair was on fire. Most photographers see themselves as artists and, whereas wedding photography is about art, real estate photography is about sales. It is more akin to product photography and seeking to elicit a desired response to the product. It is artistry but it is also psychology, as well. 

So the answer to the question, “Do you need professional photography?” is “it depends,”. . .but depends on what?

Now there is no question that job #1 in selling a property is to price it correctly. You could have images etched in gold leaf, but if the property is over-priced. ..fo-git-a bout it. ..it will be 3 months of the cricket symphony until finally the client relents and starts to deal with the reality of the market. This is especially true with today’s online realities. When you price your listing, it will appear in the property search with hundreds of other similarly priced listings. If your listing is over-priced, it will compare poorly with the other homes that are gathered in that search price range. The best photos in the world will not solve that problem. 

However, when you correctly price a home, it puts you in a competitive stream. THAT’S when magazine-quality photos pay huge dividends. Your listing will rise to the top, it will stand-out, pop and will be noticed by those searching in that price bracket. Result: more showings which leads to more offers coming sooner. I’ve seen this over and over, in fact, one of my most recent shoots was on the market less than a day and got a full price offer that was ratified the next day. Was the house priced well? Yes; Staged well? Yes; quality photos? Yes;. . .do you see a pattern here?

That is why I strongly advise agents to consider upgrading their online presentation of their photos of ALL their listing properties; including for the Townies and typical first-time-homes as well. As you can already tell, I’m not a big believer in the drones, the 3-D layouts, the 360 cam or the floating cam videos. It’s just not the most efficient use of your precious marketing dollars. Ok, maybe for a multi-million-dollar listing. . .give it a shot. . .why not?

But especially in the big market of under $750,000 homes, it’s having magazine-quality photos of your listing on the MRIS that is a real advantage. Here’s another important reason: most potential clients searching for property WANT to look at photos. . .they want something that they can quickly click through and get an immediate sense of whether this property has potential. You have about 5 seconds. . .that’s right. . . 5 seconds to catch their eye and trigger that “hey honey, look at  this one!” response. This is not the time for the 6-minute floating ghost-cam video. 

Again, at this point you are not trying to sell the house, you are selling the appointment to SHOW the house. The absolute worst thing that you could do at this juncture is to give out TOO MUCH about the house, which is my big beef with all the bells and whistle gizmos that make it ‘better than being there!” P.T. Barnum’s axiom holds true, “always leave the audience wanting more.” 

Here is another important consideration: having magazine-quality photos of all your listings will also brand YOU! There is a residual long term effect and you will experience its benefit when you take your portfolio of past listings into your next listing appointment. It will be your single most impressive tool that demonstrates, “this is how I will market your property.”

That’s exactly what magazine-quality photos can do. . .they entice, they tickle the dream bone, they stimulate the imagination of ownership; which is the first step in sales. . .the imagination. When they start to imagine themselves in the home you are listing, it’s the first step toward a ratified contract. Once the imagination has been successfully activated, the motive to come see kicks in. Magazine-quality photos will help to get your property on the short-list of properties to visit. . .and that’s where it all begins. Find a photographer that understands that it is about making you look good to your clients and helping them, and you, to succeed! Get a photographer that sees his or her self as a member of YOUR team. . .not somebody else’s!

Getting the House ready for the Listing Photographer

photo by K.Charles McCarthy

photo by K.Charles McCarthy

Getting a home ready to be photographed for listing is a significant and sometimes daunting task. It can be, for the photographer, a tremendous joy and honor when the agent and homeowner are on the same page in getting the home ready. It can also be a royal pain when neither the agent or the homeowner understands the importance of having the home ready for photography and what a huge difference it can make in finding a willing buyer more quickly.

So I though it would be good to write a brief article on this basic subject. I hope this will give you a clearer sense of things that need to be done in order to get your home to shine at its best within the 30 photo-limit allowed by the MLS system.

First of all, be ready for the photographer (me) to spend at least two hours in the home to get all the shots I need. Especially when doing a Silver or Gold photo plan, I will spend extra time to get those "money shots" in the important WOW areas of the home, i.e. the kitchen, master bedroom or a room, for instance, with a wall of windows with a stunning view. It is those photos that make the difference and not so much the shot of the third bathroom in the basement.

When I come to the home, the first thing I will do is set down all my gear in the kitchen and then do a quick walk-through the home. I will be looking for angles and how the light and shadows are falling in the various rooms. I make a mental strategy of which rooms I'm going to go through like Sherman went through Georgia, and which rooms I will want to spend more time. I've had a few unfortunate experiences when, after about a hour, the agent or homeowner suddenly informs me that I have to finish because they have to go in 10 minutes. Please make sure that either the agent or the homeowner can be there for the entire time. I need a two hour window. 

Another important "must" is. . .PETS! Make sure the dogs are safely stowed away. Remember I will have to go outside as well, so having Champ roaming in the backyard won't suffice. In fact, it is probably best for the family members to go to the movies or to the park for a couple of hours. Many times, I will be setting up artificial lighting and having a $500 piece of delicate equipment dangling on the end of a light stand is something that can easily be tipped over by Champ or by a pack of rambunctious younguns!. . .but, hey, I'm realistic too. . my wife and I raised four "younguns" ourselves. . .so I'm no one to talk about how to have total control over youth. . . .just do your best in that area and we will wing it if we have to.

Here are some other important pointers and essential tips for getting your home ready:

OUTSIDE

- Remove vehicles, trash cans, recycle bins, etc. from driveway and front of house. 

- Sweep driveway, walkways, porches, patios and decks.

- Remove hoses, sprinklers, garden tools, children’s/pet’s toys.

- Mow the lawn; trim back shrubs/bushes from walkways and doors; remove weeds from flower beds and around shrubs/bushes.

INSIDE

- Make sure pets are out of the way and under control.

- Open window coverings (curtains, drapes, sheers, blinds) to let in as much natural light as possible. Of course, if the view out a window isn’t pleasing, leave those coverings closed.

- Turn off ceiling fans—moving fan blades just look like a blur in the photos.

- If time and budget permits, have windows professionally cleaned. Clean windows let in more light than dirty windows. Consider removing window screens as well.

- Make sure all light fixtures have the proper type of bulbs—do not mix fluorescent and incandescent bulbs. Replace any burnt out bulbs.

- Eliminate as much clutter as possible, including children’s toys, clothing, piles of newspapers/magazines. Remove anything from the floor that doesn’t belong on the floor.

- Remove toiletries and other personal items from bathroom counters; close toilet lids; remove/replace old or dirty towels, washcloths, etc.

- Make all beds neatly (avoid wrinkles, lumps, etc.); clear dressers of personal items.

- If your child’s bedroom has his/her name spelled out on the wall or otherwise visible, you may wish to remove it. If removal isn’t feasible, be sure to alert me and I will attempt to edit it out from the final photos.

- At your computer workstations, stow or unplug dangling cables/wires; clear papers. Straighten up and/or remove items from bookcases.

- In the kitchen, remove most, but not all, items from the counters. Items that can be left out might include: decorative canisters, a colorful bowl or platter, no more than one counter-top appliance. You want it to be uncluttered, but not sterile. Items to remove or hide from view include: dish towels, pet dishes, trash cans. Remove everything (magnets, pictures, calendars, etc.) from the outside of the refrigerator.

Well that should do it. . .oh and by the way, once you are done, can you come over to my house and get it ready for photos too?. . .ha! ha!. . .bottom line. . .with the usual herd of alligators chomping on your legs, you might not have time to get to every point, but just do your best because every little bit will make your home look that much better to all those who will be perusing the net and admiring the photos of your home. Hopefully, it will be just enough to inspire that hoped for response. . "hey honey, come take a look at this one!"

Visiting Old Town Manassas, Virginia

The colorful e-flyer said, "Spring Vendor Fair & Wine-Tasting" to be held May 17 in the Harris Pavillion in Old Town Manassas. "So, shall we go?" my wife asked. I won't say "wine-tasting" was the kicker that finally got me to actually leave the house on a Sunday. . .I mean, there were also prominent promises of the presence of "local artisans . .food vendors . ..music. ..home-based businesses". . .but. . ok . .the wine-tasting got me going. . .and, anyway, the NASCAR race for that week had already run on Saturday night. . so, I figured I could pry myself away from the big-screen and collect some much-needed husband political capital for the coming week.

The Mother's Day Story

I was procrastinating again. . .which was not unusual for me. . .I could have written the book on procrastination. . . except I just could never get around to it. Mother’s Day was Sunday and this was Friday, so I had only a little time left to get my act together and get downtown to get my Mom a present. 

I was planning to meet my friends, Currie, Carpenter and Short after school; downtown at the soda fountain at Rexall’s Drugstore. That’s where we would have a round of cherry cokes before we headed off to the carnival that had blown into town for the weekend. I figured between cherry cokes, I’d slip over next door to Belk’s, pick up a gift for Mom and then we would be off to the carnival. I had saved up about $10 dollars and, being the early 1960’s, that was more than enough to cover Mother’s Day with plenty left over for cotton candy, bumper cars, the Round-Up and maybe even a candy apple for the ride home. 

I was starting to realize, at age twelve, that buying a gift for your Mom gets harder as you get older. Dads were another story. For their appointed days, “hammer time” had a decidedly different connotation before that rapper guy stole it. It meant a quick pop into the hardware store for Dad’s present. . .no muss, no fuss.

Age twelve is just about the crossing-over point for when buying Mom a spatula, wrapping it in tissue paper and sticking a bow on it no longer passes for “cute.” Becoming twelve was the age when males forever leave the safe haven of “isn’t he adorable” and enter the eternal dark forest of having to decipher - and potentially misread - what women expect of them.